Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris | Written by Simon Beaufoy | 121 min
One of two films expected this year set in the world of 1970s tennis—the other being the forthcoming Borg McEnroe—this deftly-directed drama recreates a sideshow event, something that was as much show business as actual sports, and sees it as a milestone in American gender politics intercut with a touching romance. While it underserves both those ambitions with a dive into sports-movie cliche, it’s still a charmer.
For those who don’t know, Billie Jean King (an impressive Emma Stone) was the number one female tennis player in the world in 1973, married to a sweet guy named Larry (Austin Stowell). Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a former tennis champ in his 50s and inveterate gambler, to the point where his hustling threatens his marriage to his sugar momma, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue). Bobby, annoyed by the big bucks King was making, comes up with the idea that people will pay money to see a tennis match between him—the loud-mouthed, self-proclaimed chauvinist—and the “hairy-legged feminist” top female player. Technically, that was King, but in the brand new WTA her dominance was threatened by the Australian star, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). And, meanwhile, King was deeply attracted to her hair stylist, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, once again a secret MVP in a supporting role).
There are plenty of ways Battle Of The Sexes could’ve gone. It could’ve been all about the formation of the WTA by a group of rogue women tennis players, led by King and her pal Gladys Heldman (a great part for Sarah Silverman) against the LTA—and its sexist boss, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman)—an organization that paid the female players a fraction of what they paid men. It could’ve been all about King keeping her sexuality under wraps while having this torrid and romantic affair, which eventually ended with lawsuits long after the events depicted here. Or it could’ve been a broader comedy about sexism and old white guys, so casually pervasive in the sports culture of the day—as evident in the groan-worthy remarks from the stock footage of the TV broadcasters.
It sort of tries to do all three and succeeds to some degree, but much of that is shunted aside by the movie’s need to be all about the match in the last act. But overall it’s mostly a pleasure—a terrific production design, lovely score, a great ensemble cast, and filmmakers who empathize with all their characters—even Riggs, the nominal villain, is seen through a kindly lens as a family man who just refuses to grow up.
My favourite moment: Billie Jean and Marilyn go to the dreamiest disco ever, soundtracked by “Crimson & Clover,” leading to hot, will-they-or-won’t-they intimacies. The film hits an ace anytime Stone and Riseborough are on screen together.